The Gospel According to Moana



Disney Animation Studio’s latest hit was released November 2016, and has received much praise worldwide for obvious reasons. The animation is stunning and living. The story is simple but profound. The songs never distract from the story but only give the plot more depth and artfulness. And the voice acting is both fun and believable. It makes sense why this film is going to earn many shiny objects around award season.  

For me, though, there was another layer to this film. I was dumbfounded as I sat in the theater to see how present the truths of the Bible were evident within this sweeping story. It is important to note that I do not assume any of the spiritual truths I drew from this film were intentionally placed; however, as I believe Jesus when He said that He was the Truth, I believe all objective truth is a signpost back to Him.  

So how did I find the Gospel, the good news of Jesus, within this story? Simply put, I believe this is a film about our longing for identity. Identity is something each of us wrestle with in each phase of life, regardless of economic position or amount of degrees or fame. I was once told that trying to find the answer to the question “Who am I?” is one of the three biggest we will try to discover in our lives.  

Nearly every character in this film reveals a different identity struggle. The first to which we are introduced to is the struggle within the demigod Maui.  

Maui, in this film, is a crafty shape-shifting people’s hero who decided to steal the heart of Te Fiti, the creator goddess, so humanity would be given the ability to create life for themselves.

Unintentionally, this act has major consequences, because without her heart, Te Fiti begins to die and darkness enters the seas causing chaos and uncontrollable havoc. What we don’t immediately find out was Maui’s motivation was for this deed. However, when we hear the song “You’re Welcome”, it is easy to see Maui’s identity is based on a desperate need for approval from humanity in wanting Moana to acknowledge he is the “hero of men” and deserving of immeasurable gratitude. Eventually, we discover Maui was orphaned by his human parents, but then chosen by the gods and given his various powers and his cherished hook, which serves as the symbol for his fragile identity as a hero. From there he goes above and beyond to impress the race that once abandoned him. Moana says to him, “You did everything so they’d love you.”. Maui replies, “It was never enough.”.  

It is so easy to crave acceptance and purpose by impressing others and turn that into our own fragile identity, crumbling each time we disappoint or aren’t shown gratitude.  

Like many of our attempts to impress others, there were consequences which affect others. With the oceans now dangerous and unrelenting, we are introduced to the village of Motonui, the tribe of Moana, where we find a people group who find their identity in creating a nice and comfortable paradise for themselves on their island. With prosperity, they find their cultural identity in staying safely close to shore and keeping tradition, as Chief Tui, her father, sings “This tradition is our mission.” The culture of this island has found its identity by not tipping over the apple cart of tradition (i.e., the same huts, the same jobs, the same songs). Little do they know of their own radical past.

This village is led by Chief Tui who embodies this dedication to keeping the good life for his family and keeping tradition as it is known. Of course, in his younger years, he had a sea bound gaze. However, when he and his best friend crossed into the open ocean, they were met with a storm which ended up killing his friend. Tragedy and guilt has kept him close to shore and restrained his identity from his voyaging passion and calling.  

This was all well and good until he has a daughter who never seemed to fit their cultural identity, Moana. This girl has always been entranced by the sea. Even as a toddler, she was given a calling by the personified ocean and given the heart of Te Fiti, which she lost five seconds later. Her entire childhood was a struggle between wanting to honor her family and community and struggling internally with a desire to go out into the dangers and beauty of the open ocean. She even attempts to venture out herself once, almost losing her own life in the process of the failure. But instead of staying close to shore like her father, she is shown by Gramma Tala her culture’s true past and tradition…voyaging.  

You see that her people were not always safely tucked away behind the reef. Moana hears her ancestors sing in “We Know the Way” that “We are explorers reading every sign, we tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain.”. Unfortunately, because of Maui’s thievery, the seas became lethal, and the village of Motunui, like Chief Tui, had decided to stay close to shore. Could you imagine how freeing that was for Moana to realize that while she always bore the identity of a rebellious youth, she was actually ushering in a return to her people’s true tradition?   This is where the Gospel comes in.  

We all struggle with identity, whether we are self-focused and approval hungry like Maui, or hurting from disappointment, failure, and tragedy like Chief Tui, or not knowing how to fit into a culture that appears to be so different like Moana. All of us must deal with the question "Who Am I?".   Most of us try to answer that question by seeking something MORE (i.e., more pleasure, more work, more relationships, more stuff, more Disney merchandise, more power). If I just have ______ then I will be happy. But like Maui, we will all discover that it will NEVER BE ENOUGH.   That is when we must be like Moana and get radical. What do you think of when you hear "radical"? Do you think religious extremism, surfing pipelines, or political views? The word is rooted in the word "radicalis", which is the Latin word meaning to be at the roots, as in to get down to the roots of the belief or position. For example, Moana got radical when she discovered her voyaging heritage and went to her cultural roots. From those roots she began the quest to return the heart of Te Fiti with the help of Maui (and Heihei the chicken) and the journey of owning her true identity.  

As she ventures out into the seas to return the gem, she overcomes obstacles and challenges to her identity as a voyaging chief. Maui constantly questions her, dismissing her as just a princess. Tamatoa, the crustaceous villain, attempts to get Moana to question her Gramma’s guidance and commissioning.  

Eventually, Moana is at the point of rejecting her calling after a crushing defeat by Te Ka, the demonic lava guardian who stands watch around Te Fiti. It is in that moment she is asked by the spirit of her Gramma, “Do you know who you are?”.

She replies in song:  

Who am I? I am the girl who loves my island I'm the girl who loves the sea It calls me  

I am the daughter of the village chief We are descended from voyagers

Who found their way across the world

They call me After this final acceptance of the call, she knows exactly who she is, and she can now inform others of their identity.  

First up is Te Ka. This demon guardian is discovered to be the goddess Te Fiti, only without the heart she has lost her creative and good identity and instead became defined as a destroyer. Upon the return of the heart, the hardness and hate falls from Te Fiti and she is restored to her true identity. Has this happened to you where you were calloused by life and in desperate need of the restorative identity to be placed back inside of you by throwing off the labels you wear?   Next up is Maui. Maui had always found his identity in his abilities, heroic deeds, and of course his hook. But when Maui stands vulnerable without his hook, thanks to a reminder from Moana, he can now realize his identity not by earning acceptance, but in the acceptance and calling he has already received from the gods.  

Finally, Moana returns home and restores her people’s identity as voyagers, and is called to venture out into the open ocean to the unknown places on the horizon.  

This was Moana’s radical journey. But an even greater journey happens when we find out identity in God’s story of redemption. When people discuss Christianity, it can often get muddied up with occurrences of hypocrisy, irrelevance and politics. Each of these are worth many conversations, but scrap away all that mud and instead dig into the fertile soil of the Bible and you know what is at the root...Jesus.  

Jesus was radical long before a Disney princess. He is God entering human flesh to pursue us humans, who have made ourselves His enemies through our hearts focused on us. Then Jesus pushes it further not only by offering us forgiveness from our rebellion against the Creator, but also by calling us the adopted sons and daughters of the God against which we all naturally fight. He then calls all of us adopted children to live in radical love, forgiveness and bravery, to be voyagers who go on His behalf to share His good news of life, light and love to the whole world, and to do good, but not for approval, but instead, FROM the approval of the loving Father.  

Will it be dangerous? Might we meet failure along the way? Will it be costly? Yes, but with our identity firmly rooted in the radical presence of the Holy Spirit, we will be able to endure it all.  

Will you answer the call of Jesus when He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”? If you are a follower of Jesus, then you are adopted, empowered and called. Go. Voyage.